Real Ethics Reform Would Protect Texans´ Free Speech

At least one state senator is attempting to correct the rampant abuse of power by the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC), a state agency charged with keeping an eye on campaign finance and lobbying in Texas.  State Senator Bob Hall (R-Canton), who was endorsed by Texas Right to Life PAC in a hotly contested but successful primary election, filed Senate Bill 1299 to prohibit the TEC from defining terms in current election laws through the commission’s rulemaking process.  Senate Bill 1299 was heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday.

The use of the rulemaking process to define and re-define terms the legislature has put into law is the means by which the TEC restricts our freedoms of speech, petition, and assembly.  For non-profit organizations such as Texas Right to Life to fulfill their mission and purpose, including educating members about policies and officeholders, such organizations must be afforded the fullest protection allowed under the First Amendment to speak.

In this 84th Session of the Texas Legislature, several proposals have been introduced that limit or restrict the way non-profit and advocacy organizations communicate with members and supporters.  In other words, the proposals would limit not only Texas Right to Life’s First Amendment rights to free speech, petition, and assembly, but would also limit the ACLU’s, MADD’s, various Tea Party groups, and countless others.

The result of organizations aware and active in Texas politics is that the status quo becomes unstable; off-the-record backroom deals become public, incumbents get the boot, and principled elected officials shine.  Such an upset is not popular amongst those in charge.

Used by the ruling class to silence and intimidate these organizations that actually communicate with constituents about voting records and issues, the TEC adopts rules that would impose onerous restrictions when the First Amendment is exercised across the state or even in specific districts.  In addition to the burdens imposed by the rules, the rules are poorly written, making compliance difficult and thus rendering violations unforeseeable.  Instead of commonsense ethics regulation (e.g., preventing bribery of elected officials), the TEC abuses their rulemaking power in attempts to force non-profits to choose between disclosing their donors and jumping through administrative nightmares or being engaged in the Texas legislative process.

Political action committees (PACs), including Texas Right to Life PAC, already abide by current laws, reporting and disclosing contributions and expenditures accordingly.  However, the new TEC rules encompass reporting for all sorts of non-profits, prohibitions even more restrictive than what the Internal Revenue Service requires.  Unelected TEC commissioners develop “rules” that have the force of law over ordinary citizens.  The rulemaking power of agencies, both federal and state, has historically played a central role in our government, but when that authority overreaches to curb free speech, such authority should and must be revoked.

With less than 30 days left in the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature, the fate of SB 1299 is uncertain.  However, such straightforward proposals that protect the citizenry have died in the House while measures to expand the TEC’s power have moved through House committees.  Those elected officials whose voting records earn them low or negative rankings with advocacy and interest groups are the ones trying to silence these groups through the TEC’s power grab.  Ironically, if the elected officials who are trying to silence such organizations would simply keep campaign promises, there would be no need to educate constituents about their voting records…and then these officials would have no need to work through a state agency to quell the grassroots.

Cheers to Senator Hall for protecting the First Amendment rights of all Texans!